Given the Choice of Experiencing Pain and Nothing, I Would choosePain.
This Novel contains graphic depictions of Combat, Disease, and Human Frailty.
READER DISCRETION ADVISEDFirst Edition
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is pending.
Cover photo: Kyoich Swada
Opening Quote by William Faulkner
U.S. VETERANS OF ALL WARS AND ESPECIALLY THOSE WHO WERE KIA. MY 1ST CAVALRY DIVISION (AIRMOBILE) BROTHERS IN ARMS, AND JUNIOR ENLISTED, U.S. ARMY INFANTRY, WHO DESERVED RECOGNITION BUT GOT NO MEDAL AT ALL.
CHARLES C. HAGEMEISTER, LTC U. S. ARMY, RETIRED (FORMER ENLISTED) AND MEDAL OF HONOR RECIPIENT, VIETNAM. 1ST BATTALION, 5TH CAVALRY, 1ST CAVALRY DIVISION (AIRMOBILE), 1967. I REGRET TO ANNOUNCE: HE DIED 5/19/21 AT AGE 74 IN LEAVENWORTH, KANSAS.
GEORGE K. MULLINS, STAFF SGT U.S. ARMY, WORLD WAR II, UTAH BEACH, BASTOGNE. 327TH GIR, 101ST AIRBORNE DIVISION, THANKFULLY STILL GOING STRONG AT AGE 96.
THOMAS L. KIRKHAM, SR. COL USAF RETIRED. LAOS, VIETNAM. THANKFULLY STILL LIVING AT 85.
JAY M. STRAYER, COL USAF RETIRED. SOUTH & NORTH VIETNAM. THANKFULLY STILL LIVING AT 84.
Chapter 1: Training to Kill. Chapter 2: Cooling My Heels Chapter 3: I Saw Elvis Chapter 4: Cotton Pickin' Monroe County Miss Chapter 5: Silvertone, Down, But Not Out Chapter 6: In The Game & 1580, WAMY Chapter 7: That's Alright (Mama) Elvis Chapter 8: Top Dawn Radio, Tupelo Chapter 9: Rockin' in Elvis' Hometown Chapter 10: Wings to Wilmington Chapter 11: Losing My Wings Chapter 12: Ft. Benjamin Harrison Chapter 13: Goodbye Sweetheart, Hello Vietnam Chapter 14: A Break From Vietnam Chapter 15: Into Cowboy Country Chapter 16: Bong Son Chapter 17: The Bravest of Them All Chapter 18: Saved by the Stream Chapter 19: AFVN, An Khe Chapter 20: Back to the World Chapter 21: Home & Marriage; Ft. McArthur Chapter 22: Medal Of Honor II Chapter 23: How We Could Won In Vietnam Chapter 24: 1st Team In Vietnam Chapter 25: Twins & Trouble Chapter 26: Destination In Deutschland Chapter 27: Deceit In Deutschland Chapter 28: Be All You Can Be Chapter 29: Kansas City, Here We Come Chapter 30: My Diagnosis & KLAK Colorado Country Chapter 31: Adoration of the Fairer Sex Chapter 32: Elvis Is Dead & and Rocking in the Rockies Chapter 33: The Twins to Colorado Chapter 34: The Great Salt Lake & the Good Mormons Chapter 35: Where the Wright's Really Learned to Fly Chapter 36: The Spill Heard Across the Country Chapter 37: Aliens, Anyone? Chapter 38: Lisa & Laura, When I Lost my Ass & My Job Chapter 39: California Dreaming Chapter 40: Sponsors: I Race You Win Chapter 41: Racing to the Finish Chapter 42: Worst Job Ever Chapter 43: Transforming My Little Piece of Paradise Chapter 44: Another Decade Slips Away Chapter 45: The End is Near Chapter 46: Saying Goodbye Epilogue Book II Chapter I Don's Greatest Hits 1955-1977 Book II Chapter II Don's Greatest Hits 1978-1991 Book II Chapter III The Battle of the Bulge and Beyond Book II Chapter IV With Deep Regret Book II Chapter V Bad Night at LZ Bird Book II Chapter VI In the Event Of My Death Book II Chapter VII Dying Is Easy,Living is what's Difficult Book II Chapter VIII Patriots Or Traitors? Book II Chapter IX What I've Learned
Swan’s BIO end of Chapter 23
A carpet of luxuriant rye grass snaked through the forest floor around dogwood, peach, cherry, magnolia and azalea. Pearly white sand and small coruscating ponds surrounded greens of a bent grass, manicured to perfection. This was Augusta National; a Garden of Eden for golfers.
A few miles way, I stood at attention, a guest of Uncle Sam, sweat pouring off my brow. I wasn’t here for the golf.
I was counting on the heat, humidity, and farm labor that I endured in Mississippi to give me an edge in U. S. Army Basic Combat Training (BCT), in the especially hot summer of 1966, at Ft. Gordon, near Augusta, Georgia.
During the eight weeks of intense training at the 56,000 acre post, some GIs were seriously injured, and two recruits from our Battalion, of about 1,000, died from heatstroke. Around the time of these deaths (July 25, 1966) the officially recorded temperature in Augusta was 98 degrees and the humidity, 100 percent! There was absolutely no pause in our training, no break from the stifling heat and humidity.
Our training company was made up of draftees and volunteers. About half of our group were so-called minorities, from the poorer areas in and around New York City. The rest of the recruits were mostly Caucasian, and came from rural and poor regions of the South. A few from both groups had chosen the Army over jail after a Judge had given the two options.
In the best of circumstances, this aggregation wasn’t apt to blend very well; in the pressure cooker of BCT — it was volatile. There were taunts and insults, pushing and shoving aplenty. When it elevated to fists and blood, most were not within sight of a Drill Sergeant. Even the lamest in the groups knew they could end up in the stockade with the possibility of a Bad Conduct or worse, Dishonorable Discharge.
In the Mid-1960s, U. S. Army Drill Sergeants (DSs) could and did treat trainees virtually any way they pleased: Loud, Vulgar, and occasionally Physical. Although I was in good shape, I quickly learned that BCT required more than brawn. I also had to appease and maneuver in the virtual minefield around Staff Sgt. Hicks, one of my snarky and callous Drill Sergeants.
The Vietnam veteran, so designated by the large and distinctive yellow and black 1st Cavalry Division patch at shoulder level, on his right sleeve, appeared to be in his late twenties. He stood wiry and weathered at about 5’ 7.” His heavily starched fatigues sported perfectly ironed creases, and the tips of his spit-shined jump boots sparkled-black in the bright Georgia sun. Hicks wore his Smoky Bear hat slightly tilted — just above his right eye.
He stood with conviction and authority, and the sergeant’s raspy voice spit out invectives faster than a jacked-up Carnival Barker. “When I get done with you sorry sissies y’all wished you’d took the Marines”* Hicks shouted, “cause’ I’m as tough as any Drill Instructor in [Marine] Boot Camp. No, I’ll be tougher cause’ turning you pathetic sons’ of bitches into soldiers gonna’ take a God Damn miracle!”
Calling Staff Sgt. Hicks management style In Your Face would be an understated insult to the man, once you saw him in action. He intimidated the candidates of war up close, personal, vulgar, and unrelenting. If we didn’t perform to his satisfaction, which was the usual, Hicks would hurl his favorite insult, “You fucking worthless trainees look like the aftermath of a Chinese gang bang.”
One didn’t have to screw up to feel the heat; we ran everywhere, dropped for seemingly endless push-ups, and repeatedly double-timed with our ten pound M-14s, stiff-armed high over our heads, taunted by Drill Sergeants.
There was marching, lots of marching to cadences like:
Ain’t no use in calling home
Jody’s got your girl and gone
Your left, Your left, Your left right left.
Ain’t no use in going back
Jody’s got your Cadillac
Sound off; 1 – 2 – 3 – 4;
Ain’t no use in going home
Jody’s got your girl and gone
Sound off; 1 – 2 – 3 – 4;
Ain’t no use in feeling blue
Jody’s got your sister too
Sound off; 1- 2 – 3 – 4;
Ain’t no use in looking down
Ain’t no discharge on the ground
Your left, Your left. Your left right left.
Sound off . . .
A typical day began with a rude awakening at 4:30 in the morning, with a band of Drill Sergeants banging garbage can lids while ordering us to “shit, shave and shower.” Then we fell into formation for inspection followed by rigorous physical training (PT) that included running, calisthenics, and close order drills until breakfast at 0600.** Then it was more PT followed by marksmanship training with live ammo naturally, hand-to-hand, and combat tactics until the noon meal. By now, we had a fresh set of DSs.
But there was no chow until we satisfactorily executed the low crawl, monkey bars, and recitation of the 11 General Orders, totaling 65 words about Guard Duty that no soldier was likely to repeat or remember after BCT.
By the book military low crawl, is designed for stealthy movement in battlefield conditions. The purpose: Make your body a smaller target for the enemy, while moving swiftly, flat on the ground. A 40-foot long three-foot-wide course, with a three-inch furrow dug into the hard Georgia dirt, was the low crawl obstacle we had to surmount in a timely manner.
The mercury lingered in the high 90s. We had been humping since 0430, and now there was the added pressure of a rarely seen officer observing us; our platoon leader, 2nd Lt. Harris. He stood like a recruiting poster, about six feet, square jaw, and solid build, with gold bars on his collar and cap. His olive drab fatigues were starched and creased to the point that I believe his uniform would stand erect without him (in it). The tips of his Cochran® jump boots glistened like black water reflecting from a Georgia swamp.
The Lieutenant wanted to see how his men were progressing. Naturally, the first recruit in line for the low-crawl was the biggest screw-up in our company, a tall-skinny buzz-cut recruit from West Virginia. He laid down in the dirt and began to advance, but his belly was not flat to the ground, and he was too slow. The Drill Sergeants were yelling, “Get your butt down soldier, you gonna’ get it shot off.” Our Platoon Leader was not amused.
Harris waved our boy out of the dirt, spun off his cap, and dropped into the pit hard. While perfectly flat, he pulled himself forward with quick twists of his arms and elbows and pushed with swift kicks of his knees and feet. He plowed through the soil like an International-Harvester® and he slithered 13-yards faster than an alligator in Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp. When Lt. Harris stood, gathered his cap from the dirt, and brushed himself off, three buttons from his fatigue shirt hung by a single thread.
Drop and give me 20 and get back in the dirt is what we were expecting. Instead, Harris, about two inches from the recruit’s face unleashed in a low growl, “Five good men die in Vietnam every day,” then he let loose with his loud commanding voice “because of fuck-ups like you, get outta’ my sight, you worthless piece of shit.”
Without any prompting, me and the remainder of our platoon immediately fell in line, dropped into the dirt, and low crawled with sufficient motivation.
After the low crawl wake-up call from our platoon leader Lieutenant, there were still miles to go before we slept. We marched eight miles in full gear, then trained in mortars, hand grenades, and again with our M-14s. Daily indoctrination continued until 1900 — longer during night maneuvers — and one was subject to details until 2200 when lights-out was called.
As desperate as the U.S. Army was for soldiers, a few days later, we saw “Goober” (smart like a fox?) boarding a Greyhound™ back to West Virginia wearing his GI Khakis and black low quarters.
I’m thinking, oh boy, one less screw-up in the company, making it likely that the DSs would have more time to harass us average trainees. Now, some recruits were saying, “I can screw up real good; let them bus me out.” But what about those who had been told, “Jail or the Army?” Others were saying, “Go ahead and ship me to Vietnam now, away from the sadistic Drill Sergeants.” For many, the U. S. Army had managed to turn Georgia U. S. A. into their own combat zone.
The hammer over our heads was the real threat of Vietnam. If we could withstand the rigors of Basic, and hone some combat tactics, we would have a better chance of survival in the jungles of Southeast Asia. The intent of BCT is to break down the recruit to the lowest form of life, then slowly build him back-up while indoctrinating the candidate to obey orders — immediately and unquestionably.
BCT taught the skills the U.S. Army had determined would best serve the soldier in combat; it was intense, rote, and rigorous. If the soldier’s skills were sufficient and so ingrained, his training would kick-in automatically in a combat scenario — practically without thinking. That’s the theory, and there is some evidence to support it.
This is how we trained; the sergeant’s pushed us to exhaustion, tried to make it unbearable, wanted to find our breaking point. Our training may not have been Green Beret or Ranger tough, but our Drill Sergeants were no pussies. They pushed us hard enough that a few men did break and were recycled, sent to the shrink, or in rare cases back home. Better to have a meltdown in BCT than in the regular Army, or worse yet — in combat. The theory: “The more you sweat in training, the less you bleed in battle.”
There was a brief rest period when we got mail call, during field exercises, late in the afternoon. After the command to fall-out, our Drill Sergeant’s announced in a loud but friendly voice: Smoke ’em if you got ’em.***
The frequent letters from Marty and Momma were a great morale boost. During one of the smoke breaks, a Drill Sergeant asked where I was from. When I replied “Mississippi,” he said to a fellow DS, “He’s a 20-year man . . . never had two pairs of shoes.” During the same respite, a trainee was laughing loudly. The same DS asked him, what was so damn funny? Then the sergeant, without waiting for a reply from the soldier, quipped for everyone to hear, “I’ve been in the Army 20 year’s and I haven’t heard one damn thing that was funny.”
With a fresh set of Drill Sergeants we headed to chow at 1800, the same rules applied as with the noon meal; a recruit couldn’t get to the mess table until successful completion of the low crawl, monkey bars, and recitation of General Orders. If a trainee failed any of these exercises, he had to start over by going to the back of the line. No doubt, some never mastered all the tasks in time to get fed. When we feasted on C-Rations in the field, those rules were waived, but there was less “food” and calories in those cans.
After the early evening feed, we “rested” in classrooms with lectures on tactics and reviewing combat films from Vietnam; anyone falling asleep would get 20 push-ups or more. We remained in the buildings where we began taking apart, cleaning and re-assembling our M-14’s. In the final evaluation, we were required to perform those tasks while blindfolded. Failing any of the major exercises, like this one, would get the trainee recycled, or as the Drill Sergeants said: “Start basic all over again.”
Our next stop was at the chemical compound, where we were locked in chambers filled with tear gas and remained there for a minute or more to gauge our reaction. Now with masks around our waists, we were sent in the gas again, and got no relief until our protective gear was properly fitted.
Then we double-timed to the range for a special live-fire exercise all were required to experience during BCT. Conducted under darkness, coincidentally, while low crawling under razor wire, M-60 machine-gun bullets blazed 10-12 inches over our heads at Mach 2.5. Panic during this exercise, and you’re unlikely to worry about any more training or Vietnam. As bad as the Drill Sergeants were and as hard as the training was, heat prostration notwithstanding, one was unlikely to die from it. Getting burned with a 7.62-mm projectile traveling 2,750 feet per second was a decidedly different matter.
By about 2100, we had marched or double-timed back to the barracks or tents for an inspection of our footlockers, latrine, and living areas. If we passed, lights were out by 2200.
We trained for 60 straight days and nights, and those of us lucky enough to avoid injury, recycle, or worse had finally met all the requirements and completed U. S. Army Basic Combat Training. Despite Sgt. Hicks, I graduated BCT, in the upper third of my company of 150, or maybe it was because of him.
Had my Mississippi experience given men an edge? Maybe, but the real test would inaugurate some 9,200 miles from Georgia.
Next move: Advanced Individual Training (AIT) several weeks or even months, depending upon one’s Military Occupationally Specialty (MOS) like Infantry, Special Forces, Artillery, Aviation, Engineer, Cook, Chaplain Assistant, Native Language Speaker, Diver, Veterinary Food Inspector, Cryptologic Linguist and many others, most headed to Vietnam.
Most of us would get leave before our advanced training began. After successful completion of AIT, we would be prepared — and hopefully ready — for WAR.
*Some were drafted into the Marines (or allowed to opt for the Corps).
**Many writers list military time as 0600 “hours,” this is redundant and incorrect, 2400 (midnight) begins a new day, 0600 is the sixth-hour of a new day, eliminating the need for “AM or PM or hours.”
***(Typical military meaning: Take a break, you earned it, you might not get another for a while, and don’t forget to field strip your cigarettes.)
Where I come from, people had dirt under their fingernails, farmers touched their soil.
Popping and creaking in the unrelenting July sun, the rusty tin roof on our old farmhouse was seething with heat like it was letting off steam. It was no mirage. It was Mississippi, hot, humid, hard-time Mississippi.
In 1955 at age eight, just out of the first grade, I knew there had to be life beyond farming and back country living. I was already thinking of, and looking for a way out. Dreaming was more like it because, I was short on specifics.
Our unpainted dogtrot style dwelling (circa 1898) in rural Northeast Mississippi featured two fireplaces and a breezeway but lacked electricity, running water, or indoor plumbing.
Up the two front steps, the six-foot deep front porch spanned the 36-foot width of the house, and the 10-foot wide hall ran all the way through the middle.
Our back porch was a continuation of the hallway, except it was open on the left. On the wall to the right hung a two-gallon galvanized bucket with an aluminum dipper. It was our access to drinking water. To the left, on the back porch, a one-gallon aluminum pan sat on a board about four feet above the floor. This served as our washbasin.
Access to our 13 x 13 foot kitchen, to the right from the back porch, had light blue walls and dark linoleum floor covering. Daddy’s straight back chair sat at the head of the “eating table,” and a long bench on one side and few upright chairs surrounded the rest. Three hutches served as cupboards. One featured a built-in flour sifter. Anchored in a corner, near the entry door, rested the main attraction — a large black cast-iron wood burning cook stove (circa 1930) with its four burners, baking oven and two warming closets.
There was a 13 x 13-foot living-sleeping room, on each side, midway through the breezeway. Momma and Daddies were on the right. The original wood plank flooring was worn smooth from decades of foot traffic. Oval framed pictures of relatives long passed hung on the unpainted walls. A rustic black iron bedstead supported a feather bed on its frame, and a couple of straight back hickory chairs with bulrush seats rested nearby.
A fireplace with a small hearth and brick surround stood in the center of the outer wall. A pair of blackened Andirons embellished with the image of a dog was used to raise the logs off the hearth and prevent them from falling forward. Two tall translucent vases filled with noteworthy papers sat on the mantel. An old dresser, missing its mirror, was stationed in the corner near the fireplace. Momma’s foot-powered Honeymoon (brand) sewing machine (circa 1910) rested nearby.
A window about five feet tall, and three feet wide, configured with 8 x 10 inch sheets of glass, was located to the right of the fireplace, and yielded a view north, toward the gravel road. Some of the panes were held in place with dressmaker pins and needles pushed into their wooden frames. A similar window on the right side wall provided a view of the front porch and beyond.
The room across the hall was identical and similarly furnished, except for an additional bed and walls that were painted a light blue.
Lighting for all rooms was provided by two kerosene lamps with dark orange fonts, flat cotton wicks, and 8-inch high chimney globes. The 10 to 15-lumen output of each lamp, provided about the same brightness as one medium-sized candle.
Still standing. Swan Family Farmhouse (below) as seen in 2013. Maintained by Don's elderly and amazing brother Dale. Note the original stone foundation. Built circa 1898. (Swan collection)
Indoor living space amounted to about 700 square feet, including the two small “side rooms” on opposite ends of the hall that stored canned goods and clothing. In one of those rooms, we were storing for someone, an old and ornate organ (circa 1930) with a built-in mirror; surely the most valuable item in the house. While pumping the well-worn pedals, striking the keys, and experimenting with the draw knobs, I eventually learned to play Rock Of Ages.
A swing hung from a rafter on the right side of the front porch, an Adirondack chair and a few straight backs sat on the floor nearby.
A fabricated windless using a short sweet-gum log with handle, a rope and pulley system, and a galvanized-gallon bucket was used to draw water from our 20-foot deep well. In the summer when we needed it the most, it was barely adequate for our needs. Covered by an open tin shed, the well was just a few feet to the right of the front porch, besides a sweet shrub bush.
A two-seater outhouse, that Momma built, was situated on a gentle slope about 150 feet behind and just to the right of the back porch. Supported on one end by a mulberry tree and the other by a cedar post, the floor was dirt. It was framed similar to our chicken coop across the street, which Momma also fashioned.
The scrap plank theme of the privy had the weathered look of the outside of our house and the same type of sloping roof. The entryway on the left had no door, but it faced the woods. The two taking care of business holes were cut, octagon style, again, rough plank. There was no lighting or water of course, but a Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog was there for clean-up and a great chance for me to fantasize while exploring the foundation section.
In the large backyard, apple, peach, pecan, walnut, and fig trees grew along with Scuppernong and other grapes varieties. Farther behind the house, our 8 x 15-foot smokehouse, with its high ceiling, abutted a grove of long leaf pines. Our pigpen was to the left, about 200 feet, usually down wind.
A portion of the front yard from the porch to the gravel road looked like the infield of a baseball diamond. As an alternative to grass (not uncommon at the time), Momma scraped the area clear of any vegetation using a hoe, and maintained it that way.
Just to the left, was Momma’s impressive 20 x 20-foot varietal flower garden. She planted, nurtured and cared for that beautiful plot — envied by those who had the fortune to walk into Momma’s version of peace and tranquility — with her fragrant magnolias, dahlias, snowballs, hydrangeas, black-eyed-Susan’s and other beauties.
A sharecropper’s shack, with its roof collapsing, sat 200 feet to the north, making our dogtrot look pretty good; a reminder that our family, may have had even harder times. Still, most of my clothes and shoes were hand-me-downs from my older cousin Frankie. Having footwear in the summer months was not an issue, my brother and I went barefoot.
Across the road, some large sweet gum trees stood beside a few smaller cedars. Slightly to the right, two 10 x 12 x 15-foot tall structures, served as corn and cotton cribs. A small chicken coop was attached to one. Still farther to the right rested our 20 x 30-foot barn, with its roof and sides covered with corrugated tin; behind it was a corral large enough for feeding a few livestock. No far to the right of the barn was a half-acre field, our nearest cotton patch.
The narrow gravel road that ran past our house, just thirty feet from our doorsteps, was seldom traveled, led to pretty much nowhere, and didn’t hit pavement for miles. For me, a passing vehicle was an event. Six days a week, I could expect about three, the mail carrier, a farm truck, or tractor.
Sitting on the edge of the front porch facing south toward the pigpen in my Big Buck™ overalls, I was swinging my legs, and trying to reach the shaded grass to cool my heels when I remembered a chore I’d forgotten.
I dropped my feet into the six-inch tall Johnson grass, made a sharp turn right and raced 40 feet or so toward the backyard, and stopped under a scrawny crab apple tree. Its fruit fell too early for good eating; however, it was good for the hogs. I was tossing the sad apples into a bushel basket when I heard the sound of a vehicle, fast approaching from the north, blocked from my site by the house.
With my toes planted in the grass, I sprinted hard toward the road. I made it in time to get a perfect view. Not more than 20 feet directly in front of me was a speeding car kicking up rocks and dust. But it was no farmer hauling hay, nor a local heading to a fishing hole.
My barefoot sprint from the backyard, through the Johnson grass, was paying dividends. No farmer or fisherman in sight; but a big-blue Cadillac, a baby-blue convertible, passing on the gravel road just 20 feet in front of me. The Caddy sported white tags like those from Tennessee.
My eyes focused on the two men in the front seat, and with the top down, I got a good look. The driver had slicked-backed-black hair and long sideburns. I ran after them on the banks of the road until they disappeared in a cloud of dust, at about 20 mph.
I had seen enough. At age eight, my world had just changed. Because the driver of that Caddy, with the slick-backed-black hair and long sideburns, was ELVIS! You know, Elvis Presley. I’d seen pictures of him, of course, and they sure looked like the man behind the steering wheel of the convertible that had just roared by our house kicking up gravel. Everyone knew that Elvis owned Cadillac’s.
Naturally, I was anxious to tell everybody, and on that first day there was just one: my Momma.
As I looked for her, a warm summer shower moistened the dusty-dry-dirt and filled the air with that pleasant and unmistakable earthy smell.
I found Momma walking toward the back porch, raindrops rolling off her bonnet, and a hoe resting on her shoulder like she was carrying a rifle. She’d been working and sweating in the large truck-patch, down a slight grade, behind a grove of trees about 15 yards behind our house.
Momma said she had heard nothing, let alone seen a Cadillac. She thought it was best we keep the story just between ourselves.
Caddy, similar to the one I saw Elvis driving by our house in 1955. (Courtesy GM)
So, there was no use in pressing my Elvis sighting story, I had lots of chores to tend to, like feeding the chickens and bringing in “stowood.” (Stove wood used to heat the stove Mamma cooked on.) If I wanted any dinner, that is. (Noon meal in the South is dinner, not lunch, and the evening meal is supper.) And don’t forget to add those crab apples to the hog slop, Momma reminded me.
It wasn’t inconceivable, though, that Elvis had driven by our house.* Elvis was born in Tupelo, Mississippi, less than an hour’s drive north of us, in a shotgun house; a narrow rectangular structure about 15 feet wide and 30 feet long with rooms arranged one behind the other with doors at each end. It was a symbol of how the poor lived in the mid-20th Century South, and although painted, their house was no better than ours. By now (1955) he had been living in Memphis for seven years.
There was a rumor, that in a few months, he would do a show at the National Guard Armory in Amory, Mississippi, less than a half-hour’s drive from where I was standing.** On car radios, I had heard Elvis’ music on WHBQ in Memphis, the station that first played his records, and rightly got the credit for introducing him to the public.
“I went into Sun Records, and there was a guy in there took down my name told me he might call me sometime. So he called me about a year and a half later, and I went in and recorded my first record, That’s Alright,” Elvis said in early 1953. (First commercial release by Elvis, a regional hit, 1954.)
The leader of a popular Memphis band, where Elvis had failed an audition, told him he should “stick to driving a truck,” (his job at the time). A year later, in 1956, Elvis had four #1 songs on Billboard’s Top 40, two of which were the top two songs of the year!
Big dreamer that I was, I wasn’t thinking of being like Elvis, although we had a few things in common. We were born nearby, very close to our Mother’s who thought we might be preachers, had a deceased sibling, made early visits to a radio station, grew up poor in substandard housing, influenced by church attendance, and were searching for more exciting employment. Our mother’s middle name started with the letter L, and we both went on to serve in the US Army in Germany. Finally, we were both unpopular in high school until we started performing.
I just wanted a job like those disc jockeys on WAMY in Amory, “working” in an air-conditioned studio. I could do that, introduce Elvis, play his records. Momma told me that I was a good performer. I had practiced-preached for her many times, using two empty five-gallon lard cans stacked one atop another as my pulpit. Momma, a very religious woman, was pleased by my “sermons” and hoped that one day I might be a minister for the Lord.
My eight year older brother Dale had a makeshift oil change rack just across the road (from our house) at the crest of a knoll; he secured blocks on the ground and then placed two narrow boards atop them for a car to drive onto. I would stand on the rack looking down a gentle slope, toward a small apple orchard just before dusk.
I imagined an amphitheater filled with lost souls. I stood tall, for a six-year-old. Some of my best sermons, I believe, were delivered with no one listening. After just a few nights of preaching, I switched to a parody of introducing artists and singers, as I hoped to one day do, to a large gathering, or on the radio.
Maybe Momma was on to something. Spreading the word might work for me with music, instead of preaching. I was sincere in my plan because I loved music beyond the dream that it would get me off the farm.
Interestingly, one of my favorite songs was Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley & His Comets; it would become the Nation’s first Rock ‘n’ Roll hit. Guess who once opened for Bill Haley? Yep, Elvis. I was also drawn to The Four Lads, Dean Martin, Fats Domino, and others. I wanted to introduce those stars and their music to the masses via radio. Deep down, though, I dreaded the day when someone would tell me to stick to farming.
*I would learn later, the day before he passed our house, Elvis did a show in Belden, Miss., just 37 miles northwest of where I stood.
**That momentous show with Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins was Dec. 12, 1955 in Amory, where Perkins wrote and performed Blue Suede Shoes, a hit for both he and Elvis. Unsurprisingly, I didn’t make the show. Virginia Waynette Pugh (Tammy Waynette) was born in Itawamba County, near Elvis’ birthplace in Tupelo, adjacent to Lee County. She like Elvis, eventually moved to Memphis to pursue her singing career.
There would plenty of time for me to daydream, in the coming years, about my aspirations, while working on the farm, while in church, school, or when riding the bus to and from Hatley 90 minutes a day.
When school started in August, students were dismissed early the first few weeks for the cotton harvest. Great, out of school early — to pick cotton!
The cotton stalk is around three feet tall, with about 50 bolls open when ready for harvest. At the first picking in mid-August it’s still hot, dry, and dirty, and in late September or early October, for the second harvest, it’s chilly and wet in the morning.
In the mid to late 1950s, one could earn $2.00 for picking 150 pounds of cotton. The very best pickers were good for about 200 pounds, bustling from “can to can’t or sun to sun,” (sun-up to sun-down). Fingers hurt from constant contact with the prickly stems, you had an aching back, and your knees were sore. At the end of the day, though, you might have two dollars in your pocket. The minimum wage of $1.00 an hour (in the late 1950s) was not paid to casual farmworkers.
I had little time, though, to earn money picking because we had our own farm. On our 58 acres, about six were tillable land. In the fertile soil, we grew an acre of cotton, four times as much corn, a patch of Saccharum cane, and on a quarter-acre, known as the new ground, we grew fruit and vegetables.
Sometimes we had enough watermelons, cantaloupes, tomatoes, corn, peas, and beans leftover for Daddy to take to Amory, where he sold them from the bed of his pickup. Except for those vegetables and our acre of cotton, we were subsistence farmers.
We also nurtured a couple of milk cows, a few Aberdeen Angus beef cattle, several hogs, scores of chickens, and a couple of colorful guineas. Our hand-me-down dog, Old Jim and Fuzzy Sue, the cat, were our domesticated animals.
On the remainder of our spread, where crops once grew, stood oak, poplar, cedar, spruce pine, holly, pecan, walnut and sweet gum trees. Ten-foot wide Weaver’s creek flowed year-round through our proverbial back forty and yielded small fish and water moccasin. It also had some good swimming holes, especially when the beavers had been at work.
Two aging mules, Momma, Daddy, my older brother Dale and me provided all the labor for our enterprise. Walking behind Sam and Kate, who pulled the plow attached to wooden stocks, was done by Dale and Daddy.
Sam was undoubtedly the dumbest and laziest mule in the state of Mississippi, or smart like a fox. About twice a day, Sam would stop in the midst of pulling the plow — several minutes for no apparent reason — and there he would stay until he was good and ready to move. Tilling the soil with two mules when many farmers had tractors or at least horses seemed ridiculous. But we had a small allotment for planting cotton and therefore a small margin for profit.
My contribution to the crops included picking up cotton squares that contain boll-weevil eggs, hoeing (and the aforementioned) picking. For the corn crop, I was hoeing, harvesting, shucking, and finally, pulling fodder from the dried up stalks.
I cut, split, stacked, and delivered wood to the stove and fireplace. I weeded the garden, picked fruits and vegetables, and shelled beans and peas. There’s more: I pulled up, cleaned, and shelled dry peanuts, churned butter, removed deposits from the outhouse, and so on. Momma helped me with many of these chores when she was not otherwise occupied with her countless domestic duties, including the hours it took to prepare three meals daily.
My daily chores included herding the cattle for feeding, milking the cows, attending to the mules, and slopping the hogs. Then there was feeding the chickens, gathering eggs, and drawing water. I was also responsible for the kerosene lamps — making sure they were filled, and the wicks were trimmed and in good working order.
Not daily, but frequently I had other responsibilities that included cleaning out stables and mending barbwire fences that enclosed about ten acres of pasture.
During the school year, in addition to the chores, I had homework. Some of my fellow students complained of having to finish their after school work before they could watch Gunsmoke, the wildly popular western. I didn’t have that problem. No electricity, No TV!**
Despite having plenty to keep me occupied work wise, I had to be careful of the rattlesnake, eastern diamondback, copper head, cottonmouth, water moccasin, coral snake and the poison ivy vine. Mississippi is home to almost a thousand different insects, and I was frequently harassed by wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, spiders, ticks, red ants, chiggers, and mosquitoes. Nevertheless, I was bored and restless, anxious even. (Insect data from Mississippi State University.)
Only occasionally were there children my age to play with, and none lived within walking distance or a reasonable bicycle ride, not that I had one. When I complained to Momma, as I frequently did about being bored, she would suggest I try to perfect the playing and singing of Rock Of Ages on the old organ or better yet learn another gospel tune. If you’re bored, Momma said, get the chores you have for later in the day, done early, and we’ll have more time for studying the Bible.
A dystopian existence? Not exactly, I had plenty of good food and a loving family. Nevertheless, I was dreaming of a way to get out of Here.
Authors note: My writings about fleeing the farm is in no way meant to disparage the profession of Farming. They are necessary for our very survival.
*I was occasionally allowed to visit an elderly friend of the family, who lived about a mile from us, “Miss Trudy” Hathcock, who had a TV. (TV ownership, circa 1957, was a rarity in this part of the world.) The only station available, WCBI, (from nearby) Columbus aired shows from all the networks, but primarily it was a CBS affiliate that broadcast Gunsmoke, and I saw it in on her TV for the first time. Momma finally realized why I was always begging to visit her.
Our farm lay in the hilly lands of Northeast Mississippi’s Monroe County, about 100 miles east of the well-known Mississippi Delta. Our nutrient-rich-loamy-soil was great for farming, especially cotton.
This area of the state is known for its red clay, good for keeping nutrients in the soil, bad for getting stuck in when it’s wet. Also common was the kudzu vine, very bad for just about everybody, unless the plant is confined within a pasture for continuous grazing or needed for erosion control. Confined is the operative word, since it is known to grow a foot per night, and completely envelope structures, large and small. The vine also smothers other plants and hogs the sunshine.
We lived just a few miles from the town of Hatley, population 302. The Tombigbee River, the area’s water navigation route flowed southward through nearby Amory, with 5,280 residents and Aberdeen, the next largest city and county seat with 6,450 people.
It’s safe to say that Northeast Mississippi ranks as one of the hottest and most humid regions in the U.S. Summer temps are regularly in the high-90-degree range, and it was not unusual to see 100 degree days. It’s hot and humid June-September, chilly and sometimes dreary, the remainder of the year, including episodes of frost and freezing temperatures, yet snow is a rarity. Rain falls every month, dropping about 55 inches yearly, about the third highest in the continental U.S.
Adverse weather is not uncommon, and this area of Mississippi is an active tornado zone, among the ten worst in the U.S., averaging 43 per year. (Weather data from Mississippi State University.)
As for commerce, which is to say farming, cotton reigned king in Monroe County. Other crops like corn, soybeans and wheat were not far behind.
But for a couple of years in the mid-1950s, the County was known as the Bentonite Capital of the World. After extensive research and the fact that bentonite is found worldwide, I could not substantiate the claim, but that was the declaration, nonetheless.
Although the operation employed just a handful, when compared to farming, volcanic ash deposits produced enough of the clay-like chunks to keep double-axle dump trucks busy six-days-a-week from the mine near the community of Splunge. After dumping their loads at the rail yard in the nearby town of Smithville, the bentonite was shipped south to New Orleans.
Not long after the bentonite ran out, Monroe County got an even bigger windfall: Textile manufacturing. The county attracted five plants, all making pants and employing about 600, primarily women, most at minimum wage.
Sewing was a hot, dirty, and monotonous endeavor, and we were happy for the opportunity. It was steady work and more reliable than farming. In 1959, Mississippi rated dead last among the 50 states with a median family income of $2,884 annually.
Monroe and the Magnolia State, however, would not lose its standing in the Bible belt, boasting the most churches per capita in all the United States. Local ministers were fond of saying we had more churches than bars. Number crunching wasn’t necessary. There were no bars. Monroe County was dry, as was the entire state of Mississippi until some Counties went wet in 1966.
Momma or Mother, I never called her mom, was short and slightly heavyset. Called Miss Ruby (by friends) or Sister Ruby (among church members), she had a wonderful smile, beautiful teeth, and shoulder-length brown hair, although she usually wore it in a bun. Despite minimal formal schooling, she used good grammar, was industrious, and had an abundance of common sense.
She met Hugh Roscoe, a part-time sawmill worker and farmer (six years her senior) at a Revival; they married and made their home where Daddy was already living with his momma (Nancy Jane Swan), and three of his seven siblings (the other four has already moved on).
His momma purchased the house and farm with the proceeds from her husband (Benjamin Franklin Swan’s) life insurance policy after he died in 1915, at age 45 from Bright’s disease. When Grandma died in 1949, her remaining children had mostly moved out and gone their own way. Word was, all of Roscoe’s sisters and brothers agreed that without the farm, he would likely fail. By 1952, Daddy and Momma were the sole owners of the house and farm. Neither came close to finishing high school.
My Daddy Roscoe was a big man, a stout six-footer. He was a strict no-nonsense man of few words except when he entertained company by performing tricks and dressing like an old lady and wearing a bonnet. Daddy was very good at math and possessed lots of common sense. He was a hard worker who had put his entire life into farming. In the off season, he usually worked at local sawmills, laying blocks.
Daddy was unconventional even for mid-1950s Mississippi. There was no life, health, auto or homeowner insurance. No regular medical,* dental, or vision care for any of the family. There were absolutely no unnecessary items, and he was stubborn about it.
There was no radio, access to a newspaper, and I’ve already spoken about the absence of a telephone, electricity,** running water, and indoor plumbing. There was no motorized vehicle until 1949. He refused offers from benevolent church members for assistance in obtaining, what most people considered, essential needs.
When the subject of the Depression came up, as it often did, and bemoaned by those who had been more fortunate than we, Daddy was fond of saying, “What Depression, that’s the way we lived normally?” Imagine what it might have been like, had he not inherited the house and farm.
When I was about five or six, Daddy got a seasonal job (October to March) with the Miss. Dept. of Forestry as a fire lookout. Atop the twelve-story-high tower, he occupied the 7 x 7-foot enclosed platform, where he used binoculars for spotting smoke, and determined coordinates by employing a D-type alidade atop his large round map. He then reported the critical data (relayed to the fire crews) via his two-way Motorola™, call sign KKD-774.
Remembering the hours upon hours he used to sit on the front porch, doing nothing and peeing off the porch, I knew this was the perfect job for Daddy. In the tower, though, he peed and otherwise relieved himself in a chamber pot, like the ones we used at home in the evening.
He sat atop that tower for eight hours or more, seven days-a-week during the fire season — for 20 years!
In my early years, going to town (Amory, half-hour away) or even to Parham’s small store (less than a 15-minute ride) was a big event and I remember begging Daddy often, and he would say “Let’s just sit in the pickup and pretend [to be going to town].” Once a year, though, I was sometimes allowed to accompany Daddy on his annual trip to Aberdeen (county seat) where he paid his taxes.
Visiting this city of 6,450 on the Tombigbee River turned out to be a great adventure for me. The courthouse building was a fascinating structure, old and palatial with an impressive clock tower. Daddy didn’t exactly take me on a tour of Aberdeen, but I was able to see some of many historic antebellum mansions and cottages, known to be among the finest in the South. The city escaped destruction during the Civil War supposedly because both the Confederate and Union commanders were Freemasons.
The first time I was able to venture out of Monroe County (at about age 10) was when Momma and her sister Dara went to Jackson, Miss. to visit their sister Siby, usually with Dale driving. The 190-mile one-way trip south was to Whitfield Sanatorium (mental institution) near the state capital, where their sister was a resident. Momma would say something like, Don, we’re going to the zoo in Jackson but first, we will be seeing your Aunt Siby (in an asylum).
My brother Dale, eight years older than me, was a great companion who allowed me to lead a more “normal” childhood. He drove me to school functions, the dentist, and the like and paid the fees. Fortunately, we had some aunts and uncles who saw our lifestyle for what it was, gave us gifts to make up for things we would never get from Momma and Daddy.
Thanks, Aunts Dara and Bertie, (two of Momma’s sisters) and their husbands for a watch, clothing, toys, BB-gun, and so forth. Aunt Dena, (Daddy’s oldest sister) was another special relative; she was a former school teacher who visited often, brought us gifts, and best of all encouraged and motivated Dale and me to better ourselves. I never had the fortune of remembering any of my grandparents; all were deceased before I was a year or two old.
Dale allowed me to use his prized Western Flyer bicycle, he bought new, while I learned to ride. I wrecked his tall two-wheeler many times, and it was pretty banged up by the time I finally learned to ride.
My brother got me interested in cars and let me help him “work” on his 1937 Chevy he bought for 40 dollars at age 16. I vented my frustrations about our backward lifestyle and the hard life of working on a farm. But he always drew the line on my grumbling if he thought it disrespected Momma or Daddy. He was a good Christian, who was artistically and mechanically talented. He hand-painted a white 3-inch tall cross below the trunk handle of his old black Chevy.
You will hear about his good deeds toward me and others thorough this book. At about age 15, in addition to his responsibilities around the house and farm, he started working on people’s cars, typically for no money, just to get a reputation for being able to fix things. He began driving a school bus at age 17 when still in high school, and soon as he graduated, he began delivering and pumping gas for all buses in the county. He also enrolled in community college and studied drafting.
But when a job became available at the county bus shop, he jumped at the chance of becoming a full-time mechanic. The move paid off as he was Foreman in less than a year. Even though he was artistic and did well in drafting, a full-time County job maintaining and working on school buses was too good to pass up.
As for Momma, she did everything around the house and farm except for plowing with the mules. She was busy all day, every day, rarely sitting down except to read the bible. She never had a day off, constantly working to support our family.
Momma did most of the work on hog-killing day, rendered out lard, scalded the skin of the hogs and scraped off hair, cut and separated the meat, ground sausage, and salted the meat that was stored in the smokehouse. She canned quarts and upon quarts of fruits and vegetables during summer and early fall. The heat in the kitchen was well above 100 degrees many times, as she used a pressure cooker on the wood stove. She shot squirrels in trees from the back porch with her shotgun, dressed, and cooked them. She raised a flock of chickens for eggs and eating; Momma killed and prepared them for our meals.
Momma kept up most of the maintenance on the house. She did light carpentry, like building our outhouse. Momma made many of my shirts, quilted for us and others, she prepared lye soap, washed our clothes in a black pot with water she heated with wood, and scrubbed them with an old-fashioned washboard. She was the hardest working person I have ever known, then and now.
She toiled every day all day with her only break coming on the Sabbath when she went to church, and the rest of the Sunday, she was busy providing for us. She did this all without any modern conveniences and no electricity!
Momma lost her firstborn child, Hugh, in 1937 at just 18 months. My brother Dale was born in 1939. I was the first to be born in a hospital; I was delivered in Amory, at Gilmore Memorial in 1947, (now a museum, seriously), and I would be her last child. She adored me, and we were very close.
All too often, I thought, she shared her pain with me about losing Hugh, who might have survived had he been promptly transported to a hospital. We had no telephone, and no one in the household had a motor vehicle. He died a third-world-type death from dysentery. They sold a prized calf to pay his funeral expenses. Twice a month, I walked with Momma the four-mile round trip, carrying a hoe and rake, to care for his grave at Bogan cemetery.
When I was about 10, and she started driving, Momma began regularly attending funerals of people she hardly knew. In my young mind, I thought she became obsessed with the practice, and since Daddy and Dale were usually at work away from home, I would have to go with her. She continued going to funerals for many years, long after I was old enough to stay home and work. I never considered these trips to be much of a break for Momma. She just had to work harder when she returned, never slacking in her daily grind in providing for us.
Momma and I faithfully attended Rocky Springs Missionary Baptist church every Sunday morning, evening, and Wednesday night prayer meeting. The old one-room building sans steeple, with very hard pews and capacity for about 50 souls, was situated on a gentle slope just off a gravel road near where Hugh was buried. The house of worship with faded white paint was dwarfed on three sides by a forest of tall, slim, and straight loblolly pines.
Our pastor, Bro. Earwood was a fire and brimstone preacher, and off the pulpit, he was charming and witty. Now middle age; he said he was called to preach when he was very young.
The reverend came to our house for “after preaching dinner” pretty often. He drove a huge peach color 1952 Pontiac, four-door. I was already interested in cars and I believe his Chieftain was a straight-eight. I remember him spinning his wheels on the gravel as he left our house at the encouragement of Daddy. To supplement his meager preaching income, he dealt in the used car business.
After hearing Bro. Earwood preach many times over the past two years; one Sunday, he stepped down from the pulpit at the conclusion of his sermon. And as he always did, “called for sinners to come forward” to accept Jesus Christ. While the congregation sang Just As I Am Without One Plea for about the third time, I stepped forward, slowly walked down to aisle, and into the arms of Bro. Earwood asked Jesus to forgive me for my sins, and I accepted Jesus Christ as my Personal Savior. Momma was ecstatic, and as I remember, all the worshipers came forward, shook my hand, some with tears of joy in their eyes. A week or so later, I was baptized in a muddy pond near the church, a few months before my 11th birthday.
Momma prayed and praised God often, and hummed gospel tunes while she worked, which was pretty much all the time. On many a summer evening, just the two of us settled down on the front porch. She sat in the swing on the north end, with her well-worn King James Bible on her lap. I sat just a few feet away on the floor, leaning my back to the wall.
Momma’s soft voice was soothing, and her rhythm and inflection gave the verses a melodic tone. I wasn’t bothered with background noise from crickets, whippoorwills, and the occasional echo of a rifle shot from coon hunters. I smelled the pleasant scent from the rolled-up rags she had set ablaze to keep the mosquitoes at bay. My mind wandered as my eyes followed the rising smoke. I tried to make some sense of the Old Testament. I slapped at mosquitoes.
*Thankfully, a good friend of Momma who was well-informed, talked her into getting me vaccinated for Polio.
**In just a few years, my enterprising and talented brother Dale (eight years my senior) would wire the entire house for electricity (with his own money) and set up a generator system for lighting. But indoor toilets would not come before I moved away. Again, it was my brother who installed the plumbing after the house finally got electricity. The nearby dwelling where our neighbor lived, and our house were thought to be the last in the county to receive modern electricity. In 1935, (yes, 1935) nearby Amory, was the first in the state to get a loan from the Rural Electricity Association to provide power to farms and rural areas. Obviously, they missed us. Our old place didn’t get the juice until around 1969, and Momma and Daddy still had no telephone the year I was in Vietnam 1967-8.
I scampered down the steps of the hulking GMC® school bus, after another boring 45-minute ride from Hatley past vast farmland, shacks, and stately brick houses. Anxious to see what Momma had cooked for supper, before I went about my chores, I ran into the hall and toward the kitchen.
Instead, I found her in their bedroom sweeping the floor around the old dresser with her long handle corn straw broom toward the hearth. As I was giving Momma a hug, something caught my eye. The bread box-sized object sitting on Momma and Daddy’s dresser was a beautiful old Silvertone radio powered by a dry cell battery of about the same size.
This hand me down radio (circa 1947) would be my lifeline to the outside world of music — my dreams would flourish as the waves streamed through the air at the speed of light — the sound reverberating from its cloth-covered speaker.
We had gotten our first radio, around 1958, when most of my friends were getting their first TV, and I was ecstatic. After turning the power knob on, I had to wait about 30 seconds for the tubes to warm up, wondering each time if the old radio would come to life. But when she finally did, well.
The nighttime reception was especially clear, and I had some excellent choices. The old Silvertone easily picked up signals from WSM in Nashville, WCKY in Cincinnati, WLS in Chicago, and others. The latter station went on air in 1924, was originally owned by Sears Roebuck & Co, the call letters stood for World’s Largest Store.
I loved the music of Chuck Berry, Nat “King” Cole, The Platters, Pat Boone, Perry Como, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Sonny James, Sam Cooke and eventually, Elvis. Often when I was listening to that great music, “You’re going to run down the [very expensive] battery,” Momma kept reminding to “turn it off.”
As for Momma, she listened to Gospel music, preaching, and occasionally to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM. Momma had moved on to another church after Bro. Earwood left Rocky Springs. On Sunday mornings, she listened to the Pastor of our new church, Brother Sidney McLeod on WAMY in Amory. She heard him preach again in person, later in the day, at Hatley Missionary Baptist Church where we had been members for a couple of years.
The Reverend knew I was interested in radio and Bro. McLeod surprised me one day with an invitation to go with him to WAMY for one of his live broadcasts.
Finally, I was inside a radio station! Bro. McLeod entered the small live broadcast studio, adjusted the large rectangular RCA® mic, cleared his throat, and waited for the hand signal from the man in the control room. The on-air light illuminated, and Bro. McLeod wasted little time getting into the character of a Southern Soul-Saving Preacher, which he was.
But my interests lay with the young man in the control room. By noon, after a Sunday morning of religious programming, he would be playing Rock ‘n’ Roll the rest of the day. The Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bobby Darin, Rickey Nelson, Paul Anka, and Elvis, who was tearing up the charts with Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel, Don’t Be Cruel, Jailhouse Rock, and All Shook Up. The latter would become #1 on the Pop, Country, and Rhythm & Blues charts!
And what was I doing? Washing and cleaning out school buses at $1.50 each at the County Shop, where my brother was a mechanic; it was my first paying job outside of picking cotton.
But I was able to listen to WAMY while working. I critiqued the announcers and began talking over them, introducing the songs myself, “It’s 92 degrees in Amory at two-thirty-five on WAMY.” I accentuated and enunciated W-A-M-Y ad nauseam. People who overheard me would shake their heads and smile, while others gave me a thumbs-up.
The days ticked by slowly, the weeks dragged, the months seemed like forever. I was in the Deep South, after all, a region not known for being fast-paced. And I was one of those anxious and ambitious boys, unfit for the tempo of country life.
Now there were The Browns, The McGuire Sisters, The Drifters, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and Brenda Lee. Elvis was commanding millions of fans, entertaining them with Are You Lonesome Tonight? and Let Me Be Your Teddy Bear.
I was becoming a teenager during the birth of a musical revolution: The infancy of Rock ‘n’ Roll with Elvis and other major artists, soon to be followed by the Beatles and the British invasion. I was witnessing nothing less than a musical explosion for the ages, and it forever changed the beat of young Americans’ hearts, mine especially.
My older brother, Dale, was empathetic to my dream of becoming a DJ, and he offered me a ride to town one day in his 1937 Chevy. I jumped at the chance, and I was ready to execute my plan. He drove me to Main Street in Amory, population 5,280.
WAMY was a daytime station (licensed to operate from sun-up to sun-down only), and naturally, I knew the Sign-Off time. Dale stayed in the car nearby while I waited for the announcer at the bottom of the stairs by the glass door, lettered “WAMY” in a three-inch bold-gold script.
He seemed to be in a rush as he stepped out, put his Thermos® under his arm, and began locking the door. He looked to be about 25. I was 14. I resisted the urge to tell him I thought he was a great DJ and that I was a big fan and so on.
Instead, I got right to the point. I looked up at him and said, “What does a fellow need to do to get a job here, an announcing job like yours?”
“Well,” he said, without hesitation, or bothering to stop, “First, you need to go to college and get a good education and start from there.” My jaw dropped. As his car faded in the distance — so did my dreams.
What, I thought, are you kidding? We’re in the Deep South, in one of the poorest states in the country, in about the smallest town that could support a radio station and I need a college degree? I’m in the ninth grade, and I’ve never even known anyone who’s gone to college! He had given me the worst possible answer.
It was a long ride home.
That night I watched Dale cup his hand around the chimney and blow out the kerosene lamp while I positioned the porcelain chamber, just so, at the foot of the iron bedstead.
Dale squatted at the fireplace stoking the coals, hoping for an all-night burn, while I stripped down to my long handles and climbed onto the right side of the bed next to the pale blue wall.
A New Haven Seven Day striking clock rested in the middle of the mantel. I followed the pendulum in the dim fire light, trying to get my eyes to sleep, but instead, I began quizzing Dale as I often did. Where would he live if it could be anywhere, what would he do if it could be anything? But he recognized the questions to be my own.
Dale already knew my dreams, but he listened again anyway. He already knew what I wanted — to get the hell out of here.
The next morning I awoke tired and cold, did my best to rub the sleep from my eyes, and knelt down to help Dale get the fire going. I grabbed yesterday’s clothes from the nail on the wall, pulled them on, slipped on my shoes, headed out the door, turned left into the chilly hallway, hurried to the outhouse, and sat down on the cold rough plank. At the back porch, I dipped from the bucket, washed my hands, and splashed some water on my face.
After skipping breakfast, my chores, and brushing my teeth, I walked across the road to await the bus, about to waste another 45 minutes of my life riding to Hatley school.
Understandably, I was down, but there was too much at stake to be out. Time dragged, but when I could get a chance and a ride, I would visit WAMY when the DJ I had asked about a job with was not on-air.
Within a few months, I had delivered enough coffee and doughnuts and pestered enough people that I had the name and address of the person responsible for the hiring decisions. He was at WAMY’s sister station in West Point, a town about an hour’s drive south of Amory.
My cousin, a high school graduate, and owner of a typewriter, helped me with the letter I sent to the manager in West Point asking for a job at WAMY.
Momma and Daddy had warned me not to get my hopes up. Weeks dragged on.
I was cutting bushes with Daddy in the lower pasture, a good hike from the house, when Momma delivered a letter addressed to me, postmarked West Point, Mississippi. I dropped my Kaiser blade, wiped off some sweat, grabbed the envelope, and tore into it with my right index finger.
Momma and Daddy stood nearby, looking for my expression as I read the letter that could change my life.
He was sorry to have taken so long in responding and thanked me for my interest and so on. But considering my very young age and no experience, he said, there was nothing he could do to help me with my dream of becoming a DJ. I needed experience and more age. At least he didn’t say I had to have a college degree.
“Well,” Daddy said, “you’re pretty good around the farm, and you and Dale can run it one day. Besides, your Momma and I don’t want you leaving home anyhow.”
Oh wonderful, I thought, I can still be a farmer. Why on earth do you think I’m trying to get out of here? And I don’t need to leave home to work at WAMY. The remainder of the day, I cut twice as many bushes as Daddy.
Yeah, I’m really good around the farm (especially when I’m angry about farming).
Riding the school bus (90 minutes a day) sitting in boring classes and occupied with my mundane chores, I had plenty of time to think, to contemplate my lofty goals and aspirations. A few times my mind wandered toward a more realistic assessment of fulfilling my dream of leaving the farming life, and becoming a DJ playing music for the masses. Should I just take the advice of the man at the “bottom of the stairs,” (last chapter) maybe concentrate on my studies in high school, get into a good university, work at the school’s radio station, be the first in my family to graduate from college? Naw.
I did not give up on WAMY, and I continued to visit at every opportunity.
Joel Camp, one of the full-time announcers, about twenty-three and blond, allowed me to stay in the control room when he was on-air. He played Roy Orbison, Chubby Checker, Connie Francis and other popular songs of the early sixties. His favorite, however, was Ray Charles, and he brought in all his personal albums of the blind soul singer, which gave him the opportunity to play all of his favorites on his radio show. I helped him straighten up when his shift ended and followed him to his car, a striking white on white 1960 Thunderbird with leather bucket seats. Did I mention he was also engaged to a beautiful girl? Now I knew; I had to become a DJ.
After all my time in the studio with Joel, I would soon learn — surprised, disappointed, crushed — that someone else had been working on him. And he wanted to become a DJ too. He was older, had already graduated high school, and not only knew Joel; they were friends. I had been counting on maybe filling in for somebody on the weekend. But now Mel Webster, having landed the entire weekend shift, was spinning The Four Seasons, Bobby Vinton, The Shirelles and, you know, Elvis! The first time I heard his whiny voice on the radio, my Momma slapped me for what I said.
The next few months, I tried to forget about radio. I was occupied with church, school, and of course, helping out on the farm. I was also praying about my future and trying out for the JV basketball team at Hatley. Although enthusiastic and six-feet-tall, I barely made second string. The coach said I was over-anxious on the court, and frequently I jumped into the free-throw lane too soon, always causing a penalty.
Then one night on our home court, I was warming the bench in a close game. Coach Tubb yelled to his assistant, “Give me some muscle.” After pointing to my chest, I sprinted onto the court; me Number 18 in Blue and Gold representing the Hatley Tigers in a contested game of basketball. In the ten minutes or so I was on the court, I surprised everyone (myself included) laying in six points, in the game we won against rival Greenwood Springs. I wondered to myself if I did that . . . what else was possible?
I volunteered at school for anything that would get me out of class and tend to make me more popular, or anything remotely related to broadcasting. I set up the PA system for football, basketball, and did some announcing of the games; anything that would get me some exposure. Once I played the national anthem (on a turntable) at the wrong speed before a home football game. Screw-ups like that certainly got me exposure, just not the way I wanted.
As a member of the 4-H Club and Future Farmers of America, I did well in oratory competition and was in a few plays. In the first eight years of school, I had made excellent grades, now they were just average. School was now about number five on my list of priorities after radio (really long shot), Girls (no shot at all), basketball (long shot), and church (lay-up). Instead of taking notes in History class, I would doodle and scribble in various and elaborate ways in my notebook: W-A-M-Y.
Riding the bus back from a basketball game one evening, though, I sat next to a girl; we held hands and rested our heads together. That was it.
School was not a fun time for me. I was not a jock, or one of the tough guys, and my hair was too curly for a flat top, a very popular hairstyle at the time. This wasn’t an era when being a little different was cool. It wasn’t that I was unattractive, but I did have the teenage curse of pimples.
After holding hands, with that girl on the bus, and that one improbable basketball game, my confidence was rising like water under the Tallahatchie Bridge after a spring thunderstorm.
I doubled down on my efforts for scoring that radio job. I was determined to be ready when the chance came, I would need little or no training on the equipment, but I would need an operator’s license from the FCC to broadcast over the airwaves.
When I received my packet from the FCC, I breezed through the 12 question test, signed a statement that I was no felon (whatever that was), and a U.S. citizen and sent my postage-paid application to New Orleans. “The successful applicant should receive their license in eight to ten days,” said the FCC. My confidence was blooming like a Mississippi Magnolia.
Day-10 nothing, day-12 nothing, day-14 nothing; I asked those around the station who had gone through a similar process, but none had experienced any such delays. With practically everyone in the County knowing of my dream, the fuss, the preparation, and my effort — could I have actually flunked the simple test?! Day 15, bingo, my Operator License arrived in the mail. My address was Greenwood Springs; the letter had been misdirected to the city of Greenwood (not Springs) Mississippi, causing the delay. Then I got my driver’s license using Dale’s ’37 Chevy.
After a six-month probationary period, my regular FCC license was issued. (Swan archives)
All the while, Momma was praying that God would have his will in my life. By now, I think Momma and God too knew, that I would never be a preacher of the gospel.
Speaking of God, I don’t know if he led me to WAMY on this particular late spring afternoon, but after sweeping out school buses all day — the heat inside, at least a hundred — I stopped by the radio station. The fellow I had written to in West Point about a job had just been hired as on-site manager for WAMY.
I worked on the new manager like Bro. McLeod went after lost souls. I was ready right now, I said; I had my FCC license, access to a car, and my driver’s license. I was a better announcer than Mel, and I asked to prove it with an audition. For Mel, I said it was just another job; for me, it was a calling. Mel knew I was jousting for his job, and he no doubt concluded that I wasn’t going away, at least not quietly.
Then a few days later, a minor miracle occurred: Mel quit! He took a job operating the printing press at the local newspaper; technically, he was going to work for a competitor. I told you he was not radio material.
Don Swan would be on the air in Amory — W-A-M-Y — the Five Thousand watt regional Clear Channel, 1580 AM! I had landed the entire weekend shift, sun-up to sundown, Saturday, and Sunday.
The cotton picking, cow milking, pimpled-faced class clown, and dreamer would be rocking in the free world, playing music for the masses.
Still 15, albeit just weeks away from my next birthday, I was let loose with Five-Thousand watts of power booming to tens of thousands in Northeast Mississippi and Northwest Alabama and FCC rules, if not followed precisely could result in the station losing its license to operate. No pressure.
On that first Saturday, my first day on the air, I skipped up the flight of stairs to the second floor of the unremarkable old two-story brick building on Main Street, which housed the station. I turned into the hall, unlocked the second door on the right, and walked in through the record repertory and past the live broadcast studio. Straight ahead was the door with an overhead “On-Air” light.
I anxiously stepped into the nerve center of WAMY — the 8 by 12-foot climate-controlled studio. In the control room, there was lots of sound-proofing, and the large window facing Main street was opaque except for a three by the 12-inch slot that gave me a perfect view, just to my right, of the Bank of Amory’s state of the art digital time and temperature display.
I powered-up the electronic devices, retrieved the weather forecast from the Teletype, and checked for any bulletins. I assembled my logbooks, and two pens with black ink in front of the control board and made sure the Emergency Broadcast System cart was in its compartment and queued a record on each of the two turntables.
Then I initiated the five-minute procedure to warm up and activate the transmitter.
At precisely six- a.m. I pressed play on the pre-recorded sign-on tape, fitted my earphones, positioned the mic close up, and sat down.
I was literally ready — to Rock ‘n’ Roll, and in 1963 it was no cliché or metaphor.
Had I crashed and burned coming home from my first shift at WAMY, I would not have died in vain.
Spoiler alert. I would not screw this up — too much.
I had made it to the microphone and to the music, what I’d been dreaming of for ten years, spreading goodwill to the masses. It was better than I could have imagined. But I didn’t make a big deal of my debut at WAMY, yet anyone tuning in — for my first show — must have been thinking: “Where’s the turnip truck this country bumpkin just fell off?”
Spoiler alert: I would become a popular DJ for the number one radio station in Denver and had a chance for a weekend shift, had the U.S. Army not intervened, for the number one station in Los Angeles!
The first song I played on-air in Amory was by Elvis, That’s All Right.
Well that’s all right mama
That’s all right for you
That’s all right mama, just any way you do,
Well that’s all right, that’s all right
That’s all right now mama, any way you do
Well Mama, she done told me, Papa done told me too
Son, that girl you’re foolin’ with
She ain’t no good for you
But that’s all right now mama, any way you do
I’m leavin’ town, baby
I’m leavin’ town for sure
Well, then you won’t be bothered with
Me hanging ‘round your door
Well, that’s all right, that’s all right
That’s all right mama, anyway you do
Ah dala dee dee deelee
Dee dee deelee Dee dee deelee, I need your lovin
That’s all right,
That’s all right mama, anyway you do
(A regional hit for Elvis and a former blues record by its Author, Andrew Crudup.)
Some, in the music world, would later make a case That’s Alright (Mama) was the first Rock ‘n’ Roll record.
From our old farmhouse, Momma was getting me up at 4 a. m. fixing my breakfast and packing my lunch. Dale was providing his ’37 Chevy for my 20-minute drive — half on gravel roads — southwest to Amory for my 6 a.m. sign-on.
Momma was constantly reminding me not to hang out with the wrong crowd. And that included the son of Bro. McLeod, Johnny, who was known to hang out at the pool hall in Amory. It was off-limits, considered a sin by our church and others, as gambling might be going on. Playing cards and dancing was also prohibited by our church and Momma had a rule about playing with toy guns, she didn’t allow it because kids pretended to shoot each other with them.
I asked Bro. McLeod for his blessing as working on Sunday would rule out my attendance at church. If this was something I really wanted as a career, he said he was fine with it, and besides, I was airing religious programs on Sunday.
One of the Sunday morning features on WAMY was an African-American singing group, “The Spiritual Mourning Doves,” a gospel quartet. They had a 15-minute show at 9 a. m. Typically, they paid the $5.00 fee with three or four crumbled-up one-dollar bills and the rest in coins. They were amazing singers and harmonizers. They did not stop when their time was up, so I usually kept them on-air for a couple of extra minutes, then slowly faded-out their music.
The Blackwood Brothers came to Amory for a show, and I was assigned to do a remote for WAMY. The brothers were a quartet who sang religious songs and were very popular throughout the South.
Elvis had seen them perform at the First Assembly of God church in Memphis. As a young Christian boy, meeting and interviewing the brothers was an unexpected honor. The Blackwood Bros. would sing backup on two gospel albums recorded by Elvis.
I was never late for work or failed to get the transmitter on the air, and the manager actually complimented my performance as a DJ. He even said, I had a radio voice. That was before, one day, trying hard to sound like a big-time DJ, I called Amory the windy city just like Larry LuJack on WLS referred to Chicago.
The equipment at WAMY wasn’t exactly state of the art. So, if I had to be away from the control board for a while, I’d turn the modulation especially low in case a preacher got carried away with a hallelujah — loud enough to overpower the transmitter — and knock the station off the air.
After a Sunday morning of religious programming, I was always anxious to play some Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the only thing that stood in my way on this morning was one last live church service from The First Baptist of Amory.
In order for them to go on-air at the appointed time, I inserted a cable that allowed them to hear the WAMY broadcast on a speaker at the church. This Sunday morning was no different, and their service began as usual.
Anxious as I was for the service to end, I forgot to remove the cable, meaning that my broadcast would be heard on the speaker in the church. As was my luck, a funeral was to commence immediately after their service.
The first thing the grievers heard was my over the top introduction of Jimmy Gilmer’s Sugar Shack kicking off the afternoon of Rock. Did I mention that my boss was in attendance at Amory’s First Baptist on this very morning?
So, when the mourners at the funeral were serenaded with: There’s a crazy little shack beyond the tracks . . . my boss was none too happy, and his tone might have been harsher had he not been calling me from the pastor’s study. I think he knew I got the message, and Mr. Boren never brought it up again.
I sold advertising that allowed the replay (of games I’d announced) of Hatley High School Football games on WAMY. None of the larger schools had done that, and WAMY would have been their only source.
I was popular at school, my grades were improving, and the girls were taking notice — calling me — wanting me to play records for them.
I knew my fortunes had changed when I got a date with pretty Eunice Melcher who was going semi-steady with the biggest jock in our high school, Woddie Gregory. We went to WAMY’s Christmas party at our sister station in West Point. It was the most fun we’d had on a date, thus far. I mostly shunned the girls at Hatley. I was dating girls from other and larger schools. Take that, Brenda Nell.
I was elected President of the Student Body (about 300 members) at Hatley High School, beating Jimmy Lynn, a popular and studious student with the last name of Carter. I was even appreciated more at Hatley Missionary Baptist Church. Bro. McLeod remembered me in his prayers, asking that my work be blessed. Could it get any better?
I thought about the time when a considerate relative, knowing I rarely got a soft drink, brought me a six-pack of those small six-ounce bottles of Coca-Cola® on a Friday afternoon when I was about 11. My brother was fond of telling people, in a lighthearted manner, that I finished the last bottle just before leaving for church Sunday morning.
I had guzzled 36 ounces of that cold carbonated sweet delight — secret recipe — tasting of vanilla and cinnamon in less than 48 hours. Now, I could afford an entire case of Coke and drink as much as I wanted.
A girl had been calling me on Sunday mornings at WAMY, telling me I was a great DJ and eventually proclaiming her love for me. Joy said she looked a lot like Connie Francis (Popular singer of hits such as Who’s Sorry Now). I told her I looked a lot like Elvis.
Lynn, the older woman receptionist (maybe twenty-six) at WAMY, took an interest in looking out for me — no doubt seeing me as an immature 15-year-old who was going to need it. Joy and I had talked for hours at a time (while the religious programming aired) every Sunday morning over several weeks; then, suddenly, the calls stopped.
Lynn knew about Joy, my telephone girlfriend, but lied to the Southern Bell investigator about phone calls to the station’s telephone emanating from Memphis that amounted to several hundreds of dollars in long-distance charges. I assumed that Joy’s mother had finally learned of the phone bill and was none too happy.
Joy was lonely and needed someone to talk with, and I was more than willing. I later heard that she was racked with polio and pretty much housebound. I’m sure Joy was heartbroken about our telephone break up, I know I was, I loved her a little as well. I never heard from her again. Well, so much for the egotistical DJ.
But my real joy was the music; I could hardly wait for one record to end, so I could put on the next one. And I never imagined that soon I would be introducing to my audience a musical phenomenon: The Fab Four from Liverpool and the British invasion.
While filling in for others on a weekday shift at WAMY, I was excited that a doctor had called my show to request a song. I told Lynn right away that Dr. Murphy wanted to hear Where Did Our Love Go (by The Supremes.) She said, “I’ll bet he does,” as she filled me in on a little gossip. Then a few days later, Lynn burst into the control room just as the “On-Air” light flickered out. “Don, you won’t believe this, you have fan mail from New York City!” (The largest radio market in the U.S.) she cried out. They had tuned-in long enough to describe the songs I played, remember my name, and of course, our call letters.
Everyone at the station was excited. It was good for WAMY. Advertisers at the local furniture store, Brassfield-Horn, would now surely have rich New Yorkers as customers.
Take that, Jr. High bullies who were enjoying a good laugh at my expense just a few years earlier. “Hey Swan’s Down Shit Mix (Vulgar spin of the then-popular Swan’s Down Cake Mix), you’re wearing my old T-shirt, you know how I know?” With everyone anticipating his response, the bully said, “I used to rub my sweat off on the sleeve, and the stain’s still there.” Everyone on the crowded school bus burst into laughter, except me. The last I heard about the bully, he was picking cotton at the infamous Parchman State Penitentiary in Mississippi.
Getting to WAMY now, I had the use of my brother’s almost new black VW Beetle with bucket seats, and four on the floor. Dale had a company truck, so between him and Momma, it was decided that I should use the VW as a safer mode of travel. Although not great for taking a date to the Drive-In, or streetlight showdowns, I was very appreciative.
With a $1.25 an hour for my WAMY job, and without rent or car payments, I had sufficient money for gas and enough for as many dates as I could fit in, at least two or three a week.
I thought back to when I was about ten years old. Our school bus driver, Jimmy Dale Parham, stopped by Miller’s (country store) before finishing his route. A portable radio suspended from the rearview mirror was playing All Shook Up by Elvis. He returned to the bus, sat down in the driver’s seat, and unwrapped about half of the white and blue wrapper with red lettering of his 3.6oz. Baby Ruth®. He bit into his 5-cent bounty ever so slowly as he held it with his right-hand, awkwardly, on the steering wheel.
Jimmy Dale chewed on that beautiful bar — my mouth-watering with envy — for what seemed like 20 minutes. I sat there staring and dreaming of the day I could walk into a store and get one of my own six-inch wonders of roasted peanuts, coconut oil, and caramel nougat covered with luscious chocolate. Now I could afford to buy the whole display.